Distinguishing mystical religious experience from psychotic experience in the Presbyterian Church
DeHoff, Susan L.
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Historically, mystical experiences have been interpreted variously within psychology and theology. This dissertation explores theological and psychological interpretations of these experiences among professionals in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), putting their interpretations in conversation with the theologies of John Calvin, North American Calvinist traditions, and a range of psychological theories. The purpose is to draw theoretical and practical constructs from this research to guide pastors and counselors in responding to persons who report intense religious experiences, such as hearing the voice of God and seeing a vision of Christ. Some psychologists interpret such experiences as pathological, some as psychologically beneficial. Calvinists, focusing on the intellectual dimension of religion, have traditionally been wary of mystical experience. A more thorough reading of Calvin's theology shows his affirmation of mystica unio . In 18th century colonial America, Jonathan Edwards also accepted mystical experiences, but subjected their authenticity and meaning to rational, religious scrutiny. To explore understandings of mystical religious experience in the current Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), twenty structured interviews were conducted with pastors and pastoral counselors in the Boston Presbytery. Results show that sources common to theologically trained professionals can be useful in distinguishing mystical religious experience from psychotic episodes. Using Scripture, Presbyterian beliefs, personal experience, and awareness of cultural religious differences, 70% of participants distinguished experiences such as hearing God's voice and seeing visions of Christ from mental illness, and 90% distinguished experiences such as sensing God's inner presence during prayer from mental illness. Using the same sources, participants identified some experiences with religious language and symbols as symptoms of mental illness rather than mystical religious experience. Presbyterian pastors and counselors concurred that many religious experiences can be interpreted within Reformed theology. The study revealed the need for more thorough education of pastors and counselors in the psychology of religious experience and theological interpretations of such experiences.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University